Theoretically, assembly is a bringing together of all the resources and miscellany of material so painstakingly mustered throughout many precarious seasons, many long months, and maybe, several years. If the preparation has gone well this stage, with the galaxy now ready for assembly, can be the most exciting feature of the whole process – a moment indeed, when artistry can combine with the skill ofin achieving the final endeavour.
For the floral arranger, be he working with fresh or dried material, this is the most challenging stage in the whole process of his art. Earth’s gleanings lie, literally, at his feet, and in his hands rests the power to evoke pleasure in those for whom he creates, and to enhance with his talents an art as yet not fully appreciated in this rather ersatz age.
In all undertakings, theory and practice should ultimately find their meeting-place and join together; in the matter of driedthis is particularly true. Ideally the dried flower arranger should be both a gardener and an ecologist, with practical background knowledge, and a consequent feeling for how the material grows – whether tree, shrub or plant, wild or cultivated – so that it may be set in as natural a way as possible in the ultimate assembly. On the other hand, however, intuition can transcend a multitude of obstacles and artistry complete a perfect picture, so long as it is free from too many inhibitive rules and unfettered by excessive conventionalism.
In the type of small-scale dried arrangement mainly I deal with here – something in the range of 26 inches high and 24 inches wide, or less – the arranger should contrive to make his arrangement as secure, and therefore as durable, as possible, for one of the great assets of the arranger’s art, and one of the objects of his craft, is to create an arrangement which will last for several years and which can be moved without harm from place to place.
MECHANICS OF ASSEMBLING DRIED FLOWERS
Successful and enduring assembly (and this includes both fresh and dried material) depends first and foremost upon the “mechanics” – the framework upon which an assembly is based. This should be in tune with the chosenand equally appropriate to the material to be used. Aesthetically, the mechanics should be wholly self-effacing, while at the same time, and at all costs, utterly secure – and this principle applies to every type and to every scale of arrangement.
The main relevance of these comments, however, requires definition. Although the principles mentioned above are the same, with appropriate variations, for any size of assembly, the remarks which follow are mainly intended to apply to the smaller, but by no means necessarily miniature, type of arrangement – something of the kind which is, so to speak, “mobile”, and which can be moved easily from oneto another, or maybe transported, with due care, to a friend or anyone else interested, for a special purpose.
Basically, the mechanics consist of any utilitarian accessories which may be used to fix the dried (or fresh) material in the desired position in the container, vase, or other form of receptacle. In dried flower work, these mechanics include the setting material (such as clay or Plasticine), stub or reel wiring, sellotape, and any other devices employed for securing the entire arrangement invisibly.
Although clay and wax and their various compounds are occasionally used, it would seem that Plasticine, Plastone or other similar materials now on the market, are the most successful. They are clean and easy to handle and give the arranger the opportunity of repositioning any items during, or even at the end of, assembly as most of them harden gradually; and, in the case of small arrangements, they provide adequate weight and utter security.
The use of crumpled chicken-wire, pin-holders, cones or such devices, so inseparable from fresh flower arranging, is not advisable for this type of dried assembly; and Oasis, Floropak and kindred products are likewise neither sufficiently firm nor long-lasting in their dry state – nor indeed have they enough weight. Sand can be put at the base of the container, up to about one-third the height of the bowl, and Plasticine firmly wedged on top. This adds weight and is economical in Plasticine. Should the sand be damp, delay adding the Plasticine until the sand has dried; otherwise a vacuum may ensue between the two. Some arrangers use pebbles instead of, or as well as, sand, but this could prove less stable.
As regards the colours of the Plasticines: muted shades – grey, stone, buff or dull green – consort best with dry material.
The setting material should be moulded into the container very firmly. It should overlap the brim and stand at least one-and-a-half inches – or more – above the level of the vase. Alternatively, a rounded mould of Plasticine can be placed in a saucer or ash-tray, or in a shell, or on a porcelain or glass tile when well pressed down, this makes a splendid foundation in which to fix many a dried arrangement.
TOOLS FOR WORKING WITH DRIED FLOWERS
These are simple and few – it is the way they are employed, rather than their number, that produces the result. As in all forms of floral arranging, it is mainly the arranger’s fingers that translate into reality the picture in his mind. The dried flower worker would be well advised to keep all the tools of his trade together in a case – thus they are handy for working on an assembly; for packing and transporting; for use in the inevitable repairs from time to time; and for staging arrangements at exhibitions.
When working with dried material, a small pair of forceps will be essential. (These are obtainable in most chemists’ stores.) With their help the smallest leaf or fmest grass or most temperamental seed-capsule can be effectively placed in any position, at any angle, and at any stage of the assembly without disturbing the whole.
A large pair of forceps would be equally useful for work with heavier material. Secateurs and scissors
These are all-important – the former for harvesting, the latter for assembly. Scissors should be of three kinds:
1. a large pair of kitchen scissors forcardboard boxes or cartons and cellophane in preparation for transport;
2. a pair of florists’ stub scissors with wire-device for harvesting and assembling; and
3. a pair of medium small fine-bladed scissors for use during the preserving and assembly stages, for re-shaping frayedand mis-shapen and unattractive , seed-heads, or long flat grasses.
A small penknife will have many uses at all stages, and a rounded kitchen knife will be effective for cutting and shaping Plasticine, Plastone, and so on.
A tube of some good-quality transparent, instant glue such as Uhu is essential, either for small repairs or for fixing some particular item. It is useful, too, for sticking a layer of moss or lichen onto a setting base of Plasticine in a container.
BOSTIK BLU-TACK (formerly Bostik 5) AND STEMFIX ADHESIVE
These re-usable adhesive accessories are quite invaluable. Like Stemfix, Blu-Tack is a form of soft adhesive putty which will fasten any two surfaces so long as they are dry. It will not dry out, is not affected by moisture or extreme temperatures, and can be used over and over again. Dried arrangements are naturally rather lightweight, and its main use is to secure the vase and its contents in the desired position – on table, mantelpiece, bookshelf, or anywhere else. (Cut a small piece (no larger than a big peanut), roll it in the palms of the hands, and put it on the place where the arrangement is to stand. Then gently press the vase down on top of the Blu-Tack “ball” so that the latter becomes flat and invisible; the arrangement will then be secure in its desired position.) Blu-Tack can be safely used on polished or antique furniture, painted woods, and so on, and is undeniably quite invaluable for displaying delicate porcelain. To remove it, pull gently, or just “roll off”, and then it is ready, once again, for use.
WIRE AND GUTTA-PERCHA
The dried flower arranger should always have to hand various gauges of stub wire, in convenient lengths; reels of fine wire; and reels of gutta-percha for binding false.
Sellotape, or similar adhesive tape, can be most useful and should always be to hand. It can reinforce the wiring at the back of a feeble leaf or spray, and can also make feasible the bending of these to a special angle. It is also effective for binding round the back or base of preservedto prevent petals from falling or becoming displaced, and for securing the setting material, such as Plasticine, at the back of a difficult arrangement.
1. A pedestal seven and a half inches high on which the arrangements are assembled; an upturned clay flower pot would do perfectly well as a substitute. On this are a pair of florist’s stub scissors, a miniature duplicate pair for carrying in the pocket, and a small pair of forceps for making final delicate adjustments.
2. A reel of stone-coloured Gutta-Percha tape, for binding false wire.
3. A roll of Bostik “Blu-Tack”, the re-usable adhesive which is used for securing the arrangement in its chosen position.
4. A packet of Twist-its, used for tying small bunches of fragile seed-heads, delicate flowers, and so on which are to be hung up to dry. (Twist-its are obtainable from any horticultural supplier.)
5. A roll of soft twine for tying up bigger, heavier bunches for drying.
6. A twist of green-coloured plastic-covered wire; this makes a good light hanging line.
7. A reel of sellotape which can be used to reinforce the wiring at the back of a feeble leaf, or for binding round the back or base of a flower to prevent the petals from drooping or falling.
8. A larger pair of forceps for handling heavier dried material.
9. A pair of fine-bladed scissors for use in reshaping frayed leaves, mis-shapen flowers, and so on, at the grooming stage.
10. An old garden knife, used for cutting Plasticine, grubbing up moss and harvesting lichen and cutting Oasis or Stemfix blocks.
11. Reels of fine wire in different gauges for use in fastening false stems.
12. Bundles of florists’ wire in different gauges.
13. A piece of Plasticine which is used as the setting material (delicate preserved flowers and seed-heads can also be stuck into mounds of this for temporary storage).
14. Dried hollow plant stalks; these can be reinforced with wire to make false stems with a particularly “natural look” which can be fixed to preserved blooms, leaves and seed-heads.
15. A packet of Stemfix; this is another kind of re-usable adhesive which is useful for securing a small light arrangement. A piece no bigger than a peanut is all that is required. The adhesive can be removed after use and no mark is left on painted or polished furniture.
16. A block of green foam-like Stemfix which is very useful for storing delicate material awaiting assembly.
17. A sherry glass, with a double lining of polythene to give it an opaque iridescent appearance and to hide the mechanics within.
18. A tube of Uhu instant glue which has multiple uses: for attaching a fine wire along the back of a delicate leaf; for lightly coating the outer petals of a drooping flower head; and so on. The tube is lying on a small perspex stand or pedestal which can be used instead of a container; a mound of Plasticine can be set firmly on this stand, and the dried material inserted as usual to make up a different style of arrangement, which gives the appearance of springing directly from the perspex.
A good working light is essential – in fact, ideally there should be two lights: one with a 200- watt electric light bulb for general assembly, and another, preferably of an Anglepoise type, with a blue daylight bulb, which will greatly assist in selecting and blending colours.
Preparation for Assembly
Before actually starting to arrange, the worker needs to take stock of the material already dried, preserved, and suitably prepared. Careful preparation should have been made at the time of harvesting so that all the material gathered was in prime condition, ready for the preserving processes. When one reaches the stage of preparation for assembly, nothing more than a final “look-over”, trim or titivation should be necessary A flower-head may be in need of grooming – a distorted, blemished or ill-placed leaf may need to be removed, or re-shaped yet again with fine-bladed scissors – a small branch or twig may have to be discreetly pruned, a seed-vessel re-varnished – all according to what part they are to play in a particular assembly. Grasses should be looked over and only those of a green hue retained. Mosses should be checked, and insects and clinging leaves removed. Lichens should also be given attention.
Though the idea of “grooming” may sometimes be regarded as merely a florists’ term for “bringing up to perfection”, its importance cannot be over-estimated and will assuredly prove a supreme asset for the arranger, and perhaps, more important than anything, of lasting value in the final result.
The store needs to be “opened up” and set ready for use, and the work of the arranger will be greatly facilitated if all the material can be viewed, so to speak, at a glance, and is put into some sort of order and sequence for use.
Cartons containing upright seed-heads, fluffy grasses, Alchemilla mollis, eryngium, echinops, horse-mint, ballota, molucella, wired helichrysums, and so on, should be grouped ready for immediate use. The same principle applies to open florists’ boxes containing material which has been lain flat – such as non-fluff), grasses, varnished corn, pressed ferns, small favourite bits and pieces of all sorts and, of course, the treasured processed flowers waiting to act as special “centrepieces”. The delicate, chemically-preserved flower-heads on their false stems are standing ready in their blocks of Stemfix foam.
The heavier items can be brought down from the beam or wire on which they were hanging upside down, and placed ready for use: such things as acanthus, agapanthus seed-heads, the umbellifers – cow parsnip, for example, angelica, fennel, parsley – dock and sorrel and the smaller bunches of rhodanthe, acroclinium, anaphalis, ammobium, phlomis, and many of the silver-leaved plants (artemisias, senecios,maritima, stachys, santolinas, and so on) which have been loosely dried.
The pressed leaves and ferns should, however, remain face downwards, as always, between their respective sheets of blotting paper, thus preventing any possible curling of the leaves before the process of assembly begins.
Wiring and Binding
Various gauges of stub wire, in convenient lengths, should always be to hand in the store; also, reels of fme wire – preferably black, although the finest types of fuse wire seem always to be silver. Stub wire is used for inserting in hollow stalks, to reinforce them; or as a false stem, suitably attached to a leaf, flower or seed-head, being bound to it with fme reel wire and thereafter, if necessary, covered with gutta-percha or other binding material; or for laying along the back of a spray or leaf, again as a reinforcement (any leaf which is weak at the neck can be given a false stem of stub wire, which can be extended a short way up the back of the leaf and fixed along the mid-vein with thin strips of adhesive tape). The slender stems of many grasses, such as Lagurus ovatus (Hare’s-Tail) should be given false stems, reaching about halfway up, in order to prevent the slightly top-heavy “fluff” from bending over and breaking them.
Some flower-heads, such as helichrysums, dahlias, zinnias, roses and gentians, are best wired before drying – for during the drying process the flower-stem shrinks and so clings to the wire, right up to the base of the flower. Mr George W. Smith gives the following advice on how to wire helichrysums. “Pick each flower-bud with half an inch of stem and carefully insert a 22-gauge florist’s iron wire up the hollow stem. Push this up until it enters the seed-box, just above the neck of the flower. Great care should be taken not to insert the wire so far that it may later project from the centre of the petals, for the flower will continue to develop and open, and would thusthe end of the wire. Never insert a wire with a hooked end through the flower-head, an unsightly method practised by some florists on open flowers. The secret of the process described above is that the juice remaining in the seed-box and stalk causes the iron wire to rust slightly and a very strong union is forged between the flower and the wire. Wires are sold in various lengths – a ten-inch wire is the most useful.”
Reels of gutta-percha for binding false stems can be obtained in different colours; the stone shade is perfect for dried material. In fact, the use of such binding for stems is hardly necessary if the assembly is sufficiently full of leaves, grasses and background material to ensure that the wire stems are invisible – and this is particularly applicable to the small type of flower arrangements discussed here. For the large types, binding the false stems will be far more necessary.
To bind, begin at the top of the stalk. Hold the wire and the stalk together just beneath the flower-head with the forefinger and the thumb. Still keeping a firm hold, start winding the gutta-percha from the top with the other hand, and gradually twist it tightly at a downward slanting angle. As gutta-percha is self-sealing, there is no need to use any adhesive. If, however, another binding material is used, the bottom end should be secured with an adhesive glue.
The Creative Imagination
As for assembly itself, well, that must finally rest with the arranger. He alone knows what he has in mind – or does he Indeed, when he sets out, his sense of creativity and imagination may more than likely carry him away – far beyond his original intention – and so often this is how the greatest and most spontaneous success is achieved. Some particular motive inspires – some outstanding specimen demands – some pressing desire impels. It is in his hands to design and create whatever picture he has in mind, and in his artistry will be revealed the final expression of his craft – a craft full of endless possibilities, economic in materials and long-lasting in results – indeed, a craft open to all who are inspired by experiment and phantasy to preserve and enhance the bounteous gifts of Nature.
Notes on Arranging
It will be found, in nearly all instances, that dried material is most attractively assembled “three-dimensionally”, unless an “all-round” or “cone” shape is specifically desired.
When arranging dried material, it is best to work with the assembly a little above eyelevel – two inches, or less, would do. A pedestal would do excellently; alternatively, a box or some similar stand.
To achieve an easy-flowing line, with no hint or suggestion of stiffness, is perhaps the greatest essential when working with dried material. In order to accomplish this, the highest point in the arrangement should lean slightly – but only fractionally – backwards, whereas the right and left sides should, so to speak, “play it both ways”.
Make a start by placing a selection of different leaves to suit the type of arrangement in mind – the remainder of the leaves can be added later to complete the composition. Then turn to picking out items for the “central top” point – tapering larkspur, a delphinium bloom, a spray of ballota, a spike of dock seed-head, or salvia. Repeat these additions at irregular intervals throughout the arrangement, reserving the largest blooms or seed-heads for the “central base”. At this stage it will be necessary to choose material for “insetting”: anaphalis, for example, achillea, hydrangea, or varnished clematis seed-heads.
After the main seed-heads and flowers have been placed, the arranger can turn to the addition of grasses, both fluffy and non-fluffy, and delicate sprays of nipplewort, salvia seed-heads, grevillea leaves, maiden-hair fern and other similar materials, which will ensure a soft outline and marry up the “central top” with the “back” – so essential for soft-flowing side-effects.
When placing seed-heads and flowers, attention should be given to those which catch the light, so that they can be suitably distributed; and some of the darker items look well when set back in order to allow the more delicate subjects to protrude. A soft, uneven outline, especially towards the front and sides, must always be the aim in “three-dimensional” arrangements.
flower-heads should nearly always be split up into smaller segments and given wire stems (start wiring at the top by hooking the stub wire over and through the delicate flower-head bracts, and binding in place with fine reel wire). Such pieces are invaluable for “in-filling” low in the front of the arrangement and partially round the sides.
seed-heads, both fluffy and stiffly varnished, need to be placed so that the smaller heads are midway up in the arrangement and out at the sides, and the larger ones set low down in front. A mixture of both types, side by side, is most effective.
When dried flower spikes, like delphinium, larkspur, ballota, molucella, salvia, and so on, are too long, they can be cut in half, or even into small pieces, and trimmed, re-shaped and wired on false sterns. They can all be used for different assemblies, so making the most of material in short supply. The top pieces, with their tapering points, will look well high up in the arrangement, while the lower portions, with their dense growth, will be useful for placing low.
When the front is completed, turn the arrangement right round and work on the back, using up small ends left over – sprigs of conifer and box, and odd leaves of laurel,, and so on, are ideal material with which to create a fairly flat, protective back. The completed back should slant slightly outwards. Nothing should protrude too far, or the assembly will be too bulky and it will be difficult to stand it safely on a mantelpiece or narrow shelf.
(After the arrangement is completed, all unused leaves should be put back in their respective sheets of blotting paper, face downwards. One can never have too many leaves, and it is therefore important to conserve one’s stock.)
The Value of Leaves
‘Working with dried material, one is more limited as regards bright colours and supple texture than when handling a choice of fresh flowers and leaves. It is therefore necessary to rely on a far greater interplay between different forms and varieties of leaves, such as sprays of green rhododendron and dark brown Portuguese laurel – both inclined to be somewhat stiff (but invaluable for a secure background) – and the more supple and dangly, light-catching, green-grey eucalyptus sprays (spraying out to mid-left in the frontispiece), the delicately veined beech in varying colours of brown or Elceagnus ebbingei with their olive-green surfaces and oyster-white underneaths – these are semi-stiff but none the less pliable if gently moulded between finger and thumb, and nearly always have prettily curved short stems.
Many leaves which are white, oyster or silver underneath look well if arranged back to front: celmisia, for example,rhytidophyllum, whitebeam, Elceagnus ebbingei, and the like.
Then there are numerous, and quite invaluable, toothed and segmented leaves, such as paeonies, both tree and herbaceous (the former with beautiful coloured markings), bramble, geranium,pulsatilla, clematis, sycamore, maple, especially Acer palmatum, and an infinite number of others.
In dried arrangements the plentiful use of a wide variety of leaves, not all of the same species, is essential – for not only do they give depth and a sense of greenness, and therefore a more “live” impression, but they protect each other against curling and cracking. They create a basic sense of muted tints which, with the addition of ferns, seed-heads, grasses and flowers, may well complete the harmony of the arrangement.
Another important point for the worker to bear in mind throughout the process of arranging is that the utilitarian devices, or “mechanics”, must be discreetly and unobtrusively hidden. This can best be done by the strategic placing of leaves at different angles and at varying heights and sometimes in, according to the type of design and what material is available. At this stage in the assembly the use of small forceps will be of great assistance in positioning the leaves.
Many of the short-stalked leaves will require false stems of stub wire. Leaves which may be slightly limp or weak at the neck can be supported by carrying the stub wire a short way up the back of the leaf – this can be fixed along the central vein with thin strips of sellotape or glue.
When arranging sprays of leaves such as laurel, elaeagnus, box, ivy, conifers, whitebeam, Viburnum rhytidophyllum, and so on, remove superfluous leaves, and, after wiring, use them elsewhere in the arrangement, or retain them for future use. Such pieces are particularly useful for drooping low in the container, or filling in at the back of the arrangement.
Mixed Fresh and Dried Material
It is possible in an emergency, when fresh flowers are in short supply, to add a particularly nice-looking dried bloom to a vase of fresh greenery in water. The wire or dried stem will withstand being immersed in water for a considerable time. The best dried flowers to use for this purpose are any of the everlastings, such as helichrysums, rhodanthe, acrocliniums and others, and also any appropriate seed-heads or wired leaves. A favourite dried bloom or seed-head can be set in an arrangement of fresh leaves or a collection of pickings from a walk round the garden, along the hedgerow or by the waterside – the fresh leaves will ultimately shrivel, but the preserved flower may well go on to fulfil other roles, enhancing many more assemblies with its grace and colour. This practice should, nevertheless, only be resorted to when real flowers are at a premium, as a means to tide over a crisis. It is not to be advocated for regular use as when mixed neither fresh nor dried material do justice to each other.
Other Forms of Dried Material Assembly
Much of the craft emanates from ancient folklore and long-ago traditions. There is, for instance, the ancient Christmas symbol of a globe, or crown, written about by Laurence Whistler in his The English Festivals; and Constance Spry describes the Kissing Bough or Branch in her Garden Notebook and Winter and Spring Flowers.
More recently, we are fortunate to have a wealth of information and ideas, together with some enchanting illustrations, in George W. Smith’s Flower Arrangements and their Setting. He shows examples of wall plaques, swags, panels, garlands, festoons, cone-shaped trees, and – that most delightful custom – door bows. Furthermore, there is a growing interest in creating flower pictures – some very beautiful – with flowers which are pressed or applique on backgrounds of silk or velvet; another revival of past ages.